Charles Algernon Parsons
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Historical records matching Sir Charles Algernon Parsons OM KCB FRS
About Sir Charles Algernon Parsons OM KCB FRS
Sir Charles Algernon Parsons OM KCB FRS (13 June 1854 – 11 February 1931) was an Anglo-Irish engineer, best known for his invention of the steam turbine. He worked as an engineer on dynamo and turbine design, and power generation, with great influence on the naval and electrical engineering fields. He also developed optical equipment, for searchlights and telescopes.
Born in London, Parsons was the youngest son of the famous astronomer William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. He and his elder brother the Hon. Richard Clare Parsons had constructed a steam car that in 1869 was the cause of the first recorded fatal traffic accident involving a powered car. His cousin Mary Ward fell from the car and suffered a broken neck.
He attended Trinity College, Dublin and St. John's College, Cambridge, graduating from the latter in 1877 with a first-class honours degree in mathematics. He then joined the Newcastle-based engineering firm of W.G. Armstrong as an apprentice, an unusual step for the son of an earl; then moved to Kitsons in Leeds where he worked on rocket-powered torpedoes; and then in 1884 moved to Clarke, Chapman and Co., ship engine manufacturers near Newcastle, where he was head of their electrical equipment development. He developed a turbine engine there in 1884 and immediately utilized the new engine to drive an electrical generator, which he also designed. Parsons' steam turbine made cheap and plentiful electricity possible and revolutionised marine transport and naval warfare – the world would never be the same again.
The best steam turbine at the time, invented by Gustaf de Laval, was an impulse design that subjected the mechanism to huge centrifugal forces and so had limited output due to the weakness of the materials available. Parsons explained that his appreciation of the scaling issue led to his 1884 breakthrough on the compound steam turbine in his 1911 Rede Lecture:
"It seemed to me that moderate surface velocities and speeds of rotation were essential if the turbine motor was to receive general acceptance as a prime mover. I therefore decided to split up the fall in pressure of the steam into small fractional expansions over a large number of turbines in series, so that the velocity of the steam nowhere should be great...I was also anxious to avoid the well-known cutting action on metal of steam at high velocity."
In 1889, he founded C. A. Parsons and Company in Newcastle to produce turbo-generators to his design. In the same year he set up the Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Company. In 1894 he regained certain patent rights from Clarke Chapman. Although his first turbine was only 1.6% efficient and generated a mere 7.5 kilowatts, rapid incremental improvements in a few years led to his first megawatt turbine built in 1899 for a generating plant at Elberfeld, Germany.
Parsons was also interested in marine applications and founded the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company in Newcastle. Famously, in June 1897, his turbine-powered yacht, Turbinia, was exhibited moving at speed at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review off Portsmouth, to demonstrate the great potential of the new technology. The Turbinia moved at 34 knots. The fastest Royal Navy ships using other technologies reached 27 knots. Part of the speed improvement was attributable to the slender hull of the Turbinia.
Within two years, the destroyers HMS Viper and Cobra were launched with Parsons' turbines, soon followed by the first turbine powered passenger ship, Clyde steamer TS King Edward in 1901; the first turbine transatlantic liners RMS Victorian and Virginian in 1905, and the first turbine powered battleship, HMS Dreadnought in 1906, all of which were driven by Parsons' turbine engines. Today, Turbinia is housed in a purpose-built gallery at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1898 and received their Rumford Medal in 1902, their Copley Medal in 1928 and delivered their Bakerian Lecture in 1918. He was knighted in 1911 and made a member of the Order of Merit in 1927.
The Parsons turbine company survives in the Heaton area of Newcastle and is now part of Siemens, a German conglomerate. Sometimes referred to as Siemens Parsons, the company recently completed a major redevelopment programme, reducing the size of its site by around three quarters and installing the latest manufacturing technology. In 1925 Charles Parsons acquired the Grubb Telescope Company and renamed it Grubb Parsons. That company survived in the Newcastle area until 1985.
Parsons was also known for inventing the Auxetophone, an early compressed air gramophone.
Parsons' ancestral home at Birr Castle in Ireland houses a museum detailing the contribution the Parsons family have made to the fields of science and engineering, with part of the museum given over to marine engineering work of Charles Parsons.
Parsons died on 11 February 1931 on board the steamship Duchess of Richmond while on a cruise with his wife, it followed a collapse from an attack of neuritis. A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey on 3 March 1931.
- "Sir Charles Parsons", Westminster Abbey